(Or: Why You Should Talk to Your Kids About Money Before Applying)

My son applied to two schools: In-State-U and an Out-Of-State-U-With-A-Scholarship. I’m fairly certain that a big reason for applying to OOSU was that his sister is applying to a number of schools and he felt like maybe he’d be doing something wrong if he didn’t. He wants to attend a big school; he loves sports and wants a D-1 sports program to be part of his college experience. His GPA isn’t fabulous but he did really well on the ACT, so he did some research and discovered that OOSU has a big scholarship for out of state students that’s based solely on test scores.

Since he had everything ready in time for the early action deadline, he did early action (nonbinding) to both, submitting his applications online on Oct. 31. And here the paths diverged. I’ll insert here that even with the scholarship, OOSU would cost at least $11,000 more annually than ISU.

On Nov. 2, he got an acceptance letter from OOSU along with a huge congratulations letter for the substantial scholarship ($18,000) he was awarded. On Nov. 4, he got a big packet in the mail from OOSU confirming his acceptance and scholarship, along with some OOSU logo stickers (“Put one on your phone! Put one on your laptop!”). The following week he was invited to a campus open house in late January. (Did I mention, we live in Portland and OOSU is in a far sunnier, warmer place?) I got emails from the campus store linking to sweatshirts I could buy him to celebrate his acceptance. He’s received emails about on-campus housing, reminding him that as soon as he accepts, he gets his housing preference number—and look, this dorm has a pool! In short, OOSU wants him to accept, is making him feel very special, and is informing him of all the great things about their school on an ongoing basis. All the while, I’m watching his interest in OOSU grow and getting this gnawing feeling in my stomach thinking about 44,000 extra dollars and wondering when ISU will step in and rekindle his enthusiasm.

What about ISU? He received an email confirming they received his application, and then crickets. After several weeks, during which time a number of his friends had received admissions offers from ISU, I logged onto his portal there with him to confirm that his application was complete, including supporting documentation like transcripts and test scores. Yes, all there. And still no word. Then again, they said they’d respond by Dec. 15 and it was only Thanksgiving week. So I suppose they’re within their rights to keep mum. Meanwhile, OOSU keeps blasting away.

Last Wednesday he once again went to his ISU account to confirm—again—that his application was complete, as he had done on a nearly daily basis for the two weeks leading up to last Wednesday. And it was, and his status had changed from “Processed” to “Admission Offered.” But still no email confirmation. And that big acceptance package that his friends keep posting on Snapchat and Instagram? No sign of that, either.

I’m sure that when it does come, he’ll be excited. However, it really was more of a relief than anything else when he saw that his status had changed. He’s told people all along that he wants to go to ISU, so there was some ego involved—not to mention some confusion because even without a fabulous GPA, he definitely isn’t a marginal applicant as far as ISU goes. And he’s going to tour OOSU in late January.

Here’s where the money conversation matters: Despite all the excitement and hype, he understands what it would mean to attend a school that costs an extra $44,000 over four years. A neighbor mentioned talking about college with him and that he was really excited about his acceptance at OOSU. I told her I was nervous about the money aspect of it, given all the marketing messages he was receiving. She said he told her that it would still cost an extra $11,000 a year and that as a result he was hoping to hear back from ISU soon—so it was nice to see that he has some awareness of the financial implications of a more expensive school. When he finally found out he’s been admitted to ISU, we joked that he could visit OOSU every year in grand style if he stayed in state.

And that gets to another piece of this process: What do we want the four-year experience to include? I’d like for him to be able to study abroad, not have a job his first term in college so he can focus on school, join a fraternity if that’s what he wants, go to sports events, participate in intramurals. All of which are accessible if he stays in-state, less so if not.

So before the hype machine cranks up, make sure your student understands college costs and what’s affordable for your family. Because plenty of schools have aggressive marketing campaigns that play on the very emotions that are most raw for kids at this point in the process—their need for acceptance, their desire to have their achievements validated, and their desire for an Instagram-worthy acceptance picture.